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John McKnight


The Civic Legacy of Saul Alinsky (Learning Eighteen)

John McKnight
Co-Director, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

In 1946, Saul Alinsky published “Reveille for Radicals.” It described the methods he used to create a neighborhood organization that gave a powerful new public voice to the exploited residents in a Chicago neighborhood.

His methods quickly spread to many working-class and low-income neighborhoods across the United States. Today, his approach is still the most common methodology used by urban neighborhood organizations.

“Alinsky style” organizations have been most widely known for their activist methods of institutional confrontation. A classic example is neighborhood groups invading the offices of a Mayor and releasing rats that they caught in their alleys. The rats were there because the city had failed to consistently pick up the garbage. The local media loved these kinds of “actions” and so they became the public hallmark of Alinsky organizations.

While this public confrontation has been most visible, much less noticed have been the unique methods used to create the neighborhood organizations. These methods involved new forms of civic organization and action.

There are at least two elements of the Alinsky method that are important civic inventions. They manifest the processes that enhance and enlarge the authority of local citizens.

The first of these elements recognizes local voluntary associations as vital sources of collective citizen action. Before Alinsky’s methods became popular, if there was a local neighborhood organization it was usually a small group of residents who purported to speak for the neighborhood.

Instead of organizing individuals, Alinsky focused on coalescing the local clubs, groups, organizations and churches – the voluntary associations. The resulting new neighborhood organization was basically an association of associations. This form of organization greatly increased the number of residents involved in the group, ensuring that it was much more representative than an organization of a few self-selective individuals. The association of associations also led to defining mutual concerns for the common good of the associated

residents. Also, because the association defined the concerns of a large number of associated residents, it was a powerful public voice for those who often had been voiceless and unheard.

The second civic contribution of the Alinsky method was a simple practice called a “one-on- one.” This activity involved neighbors in visiting other residents on their block and engaging in a discussion regarding deeply felt concerns or issues. This information provided useful guidance for setting the agenda of the neighborhood organization. The discussion also created a relationship of trust between the neighbors. Trust is the bedrock necessity for effective associational life. This trust manifested itself in the willingness of neighbors to join collective neighborhood actions focused on the collective personal concerns of the residents.

The Alinsky focus on associations and resident concerns recognized the vital civic function of the world of the personal and its collective manifestation in associations. This world contrasts with the institutional world. To “institutionalize” something is to depersonalize it. Institutionalization ensures that the system will function regardless of which person is involved.

It is also true that institutional participation depends upon money – a paycheck. In the associational world of civic engagement, participation depends upon personal trust.

Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” Alinsky added that politics’ local manifestation depends upon the personal trust that “glues” residents together in civic associations that magnify their power to create, produce, advocate and vote.

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Money and the Civic Impulse (Learning Seventeen)

John McKnight,
Co-Director, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

When you enter the storefront office of a neighborhood organization in Montreal, the first thing you see is a large sign:

The Chairperson of this neighborhood organization explained that the sign is an attempt to remedy their “grant dependency.” This dependency had once led the group to believe that if they wanted to get anything done, they first needed a grant. The hidden assumption became that without outside money, their citizens organization was impotent.

As a result of this dependency, the leadership developed the four criteria on the sign. It became the group’s guide to a new understanding of the resources necessary to get things done.

The first question asks whether the group’s goal could be achieved without money. Is there a combination of local civic resources that, if connected and mobilized, could achieve the goal?

The second question asks whether the residents and local merchants might have the money that is needed? One measure of the authenticity of a local neighborhood organization is whether local citizens and their enterprises will financially support the neighborhood group’s activities.

The third question asks whether there is something the neighborhood could create or produce that would be valued enough that outside money might invest in it. It recognizes that when the neighborhood people are “first investors,” the outside money is secondary while the second investor/funder has increased security that their money will be productive.

The fourth question is intentionally stark: Must we be a beggar? The blunt phraseology is designed to push back against a “grants mentality.” It makes clear that the last resort of a group of citizens is to act like a client. The word client comes from the Latin cliens, a person who is a follower, a retainer or dependent.

The Montreal group recognizes that there can be many ways to immobilize citizen engagement and one of the most powerful can be outside money, even that purported to be available for citizen engagement.

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The Power of Proliferating Associations (Learning Sixteen)

John McKnight
Co-Founder, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

Most local associations are small affinity groups whose members jointly accomplish their purposes without being paid. Their forms can range from a local American Legion Post to a softball team to a conservation club, etc. When they are created, they are

As the association undertakes its work, it depends on two attributes of the members if it is to achieve its purposes:

  • The capacities talents and abilities of each member.
  • The mutual trust of the members with each other.

Through time, many associations grow in membership. The growth may increase the capacity of the group. However, beyond a certain number of members, the association may diminish in its effectiveness. This is because the associational essentials of trust and mutual knowledge cannot be maintained beyond a certain scale.

As the group expands from 10 to 100 individuals, each member has less and less trust building mutual experience with the others. And each knows less and less about the associational building capacities of the others. Because of the inherent limitations of going to scale, often the associational members feel the need for a “centrifugal force” in order to keep or pull them together. Commonly, the response is to create an administrator, convener, or executive – someone all can trust and who can keep track of the unique capacities of each member. This person will usually need to be paid so the funding issue emerges. This is followed by the necessity to have tax exemption. In this way this association slowly transforms itself into a small institution with a developing culture of a system rather than an association.

This process is, of course, the positive process by which we have created many of our important institutions such as hospitals, universities, social agencies, etc. Obviously this has been a beneficial process. However, the nature of these hierarchical systems loses the community building power of trust based, capacity enabling citizen associations.

It is, of course, not inevitable that associations will evolve into institutions as they face the issue of growth. There is another approach to dealing with the problem of scale, an approach that preserves the essential associational characteristics of trust and shared mutual capacities. This approach might be called proliferation rather than institutionalization or replication. It is a process that frequently emerges when a founding group recognizes the special power of their being a small group but also see that what they have learned to do could be usefully learned by others. Therefore, they support or stimulate more small groups with similar purposes. However, they do not create a centralizing or hierarchical system. Rather, they spawn a proliferation of small groups, each with their uniquely skilled members and with mutual trust as the cohering force.

One well-known example of such a proliferating group process is Alcoholics Anonymous. There are countless AA groups around the world and almost no central entity. The members recognize that beyond a certain scale, the intensely personal trust and mutual contribution with be lost.

Another example is La Leche League – proliferating small groups of mothers enabled by trust and mutual capacity. They do have a small central organization but it is a support unit held in check by the dispersed power of the local groups.

There are many other examples of proliferating small associations including:

  • Associations of “home schooling” parents that often link together in

    decentralized associations of associations for mutual support, learning, and

    assistance to newly formed groups.

  • Parent associations of children labeled “developmentally disabled” who create

    linked associations of associations supporting each other and newly forming


  • Neighborhood organizations that create links through their annual convening as

    Neighborhoods USA where they share learnings and inform newly created


  • “Church planting” groups of churches that foster new local efforts to create

    small-scale centers of faith.

  • Black Lives Matter, an alliance of local groups with no central structure or

    hierarchy although they are guided by 13 principals.

    Nationally, there are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of these “flat proliferated associations”. Many of them perform functions that parallel those of institutions e.g. health, education, addictions, recovery, care for vulnerable and marginal people, civil rights, neighborhood wellbeing, etc.

In many cases the cumulative effect of the actions of “flat proliferated associations” achieve more desirable outcomes than the parallel institution. And they achieve this outcome in spite of having very little money and/or paid employees or experts.

Consider the measurable increase in health status resulting from associational social capital compared to that of institutionalized medical activity. Robert Putnam’s data in Bowling Alone demonstrates that social capital formation is more consequential in improving health status than medical systems. In this sense associations are low-input and high-output “producers” while institutions are generally high-input and low-output methods of achieving a healthy population. Therefore the proliferation of associational groups is the most efficient and effective way of enabling a healthy neighborhood or nation.

In terms of utility and productivity there are some other significant distinctions between the nature and functions of proliferated associations compared with institutionalized systems:

  • Institutions are believed to provide continuity of functions while associations are thought to be more fleeting and ephemeral. However, if one considers local faith-based groups as essentially proliferated associations, many have proven to endure for centuries.
  • Institutions operate on the premise of scarcity and money is their mode of rationing benefits. The proliferated associations operate in the context of abundance. Their basic resource of citizen capacity, care and knowledge are abundant.
  • Institutions operate within the context of the economics of scarcity. Therefore, their essential mode of behavior is competitive. The competitive model is antithetical to the survival of proliferated associations. Both individually and collectively, the associational mode is necessarily cooperation.
  • By their very nature, every association is creating social capital that provides numerous ancillary individual and community benefits that are not necessarily related to each association’s purpose. The proliferating process in itself is always increasing the benefits of social capital in the lives of more and more people.
  • In the world of engineering a measure of effectiveness and efficiency is a process

    that has reduced inputs and increased outputs. One way of understanding the parallel process of institutions and associations is to use the engineering standard.

  • The most serious decision making discussions require face-to-face interaction. Beyond a certain associational size, universal participation becomes practically impossible. There are too many people for everyone to speak. This is why the proliferating associations are so critical for an inclusive democracy. They provide an ever-expanding potential for universal access to the deliberation. On the other hand, institutions cannot provide the structure for a universalizing voice in shaping public goals.

Considering the unique and powerfully beneficial effects of associations and their proliferated work, it is important to consider the factors that enable and enhance the proliferation of associations and the links and networks of these groups. Are there initiatives that see their basic task as enhancing the proliferation of associational functions and inventions?

Also, to what degree are the effects of increasing institutionalization of community functions a significant deterrent to associational proliferation? What could be done to limit these institutional barriers? Would there be any institution willing to take on this task? Or is it one of the essential functions of the proliferated associations to push back the institutional barriers?

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Associating Associations: The Power of Convening (Learning Fifteen)

John McKnight
Co-Founder, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

Because most associations are affinity groups of like-minded people, the potential for dialogue about issues is small. The focus of most associational discourse is about how to manifest their like-mindedness. There is, however, a context in which associations engage in discussions about public issues because they usually have some diversity of viewpoints. This occurs when they come together as a group – an association of associations. This creates enough diversity that contending views (or tensions) emerge.

An example of the dialogue created by associated associations was the Chicago Neighborhood Innovations Forums convened by The Center for Urban Affairs at Northwestern University. For several years, twenty neighborhood associations were convened every six weeks at a retreat center. The convened associations were often different depending on their interest in the topic of discussion.

The topics to be discussed were determined by an advisory group of neighborhood organizations. They tended to fall into two categories. The first was issues of common concern. The second was innovations created by neighborhood groups from across the United States. The topics of discussion are listed below. Those focused on innovation are preceded by an asterisk.

The Place of Local Community Organizations in Decisions About City Expenditures in Their Neighborhoods

*Building a New School/Community Partnership through the Participation of Local Schools in Economic and Community Revitalization of Their Neighborhoods

Organizing for Chicago School Reform
*The Neighborhoods’ Options in the Energy Crisis
Neighborhood Economic Interests in Chicago’s Mandatory Waste Separation Ordinance Developing an Affordable Housing Agenda for the Nineties
Illinois School Reform Legislation Bill #18-39
*Credit Unions as a Tool for Community Development

*Rethinking the Welfare Dollar: New Initiatives by Local Community Groups

*Issues in Local Ownership and Control: The Prospects for Community Land Trusts in Chicago Neighborhoods

*Neighborhood Responses to the Drug Trade

*Expanding Opportunities and Creating Community Change Through Small Groups

*New Directions in Community Strategic Planning: Thinking Through and Taking Charge

*New Directions in Community Organizing

Local Community Stakes in State Economic Development Policies and Programs: Building an Agenda for the Future

*Community Gardening: A Community Building Tool

The Role of Community Organizing in Chicago Public School Reform

*Neighborhood Initiatives for Improved Transit to Work

The Future of Neighborhood Health Planning for Chicago’s West Side Corridor

Developing a Comprehensive Plan for Chicago Westside Strategy on Drugs

Building a Neighborhood Agenda

Neighborhood Capital Budget Group Board/Staff Annual Retreat

*Neighborhood Innovations in Financial Services as a Base for Community Economic Development

Resources for the Neighborhood Agenda

Public Policy Development for the Campaign for a Drug-Free Westside: Strengthening Prevention, Treatment and Enforcement

The Greening Network: Past-Present-Future
*Strategies on Developing a Chicago Association of Local School Councils

Planning for the Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy for the City of Chicago *Exploring Governmental Initiatives for the Neighborhood Agenda
*Exploring Women’s Initiatives to Build Multicultural Relationships in Chicago Chicago: Where Have We Been? Where are We? Where Do We Want to Go? Community Policing: Where Do We Go From Here?

Youth Policy Forum I

Youth Policy Forum II

The discussions of issues tended to focus on what to do. The discussions on innovations focused on how something might be newly created. These two categories reflected key functions of associations – public decision-making and creative innovations. Both are essential to the democratic process.

These discussions resulted in the creation of 13 sustaining groups of associations focused on acting on their discussions. These working groups made major contributions to neighborhood well being and public policy, often over a lengthy period of time.

This kind of forum is an example of the power of convening. While many institutions are interested in enabling neighborhoods, they tend to focus on interventions and see convening as a means to their ends. An even more productive function could be to act as a neutral convener.

There were two distinctive features in the convening of the Neighborhood Innovations Forums. The first was that the neighborhood groups defined the questions they wanted to discuss rather than relying on institutions to define or join in to defining the questions. As a result, built into the discussions was the participant’s motivation to act because the questions were those the associations themselves cared about.

The second distinctive feature was that the participants were all neighborhood organizations. With a few rare exceptions, representatives of agencies, business and government were not invited. The result was that the discussions placed responsibility and accountability for action on local citizen organizations. The presence of institutional representatives would have diminished associational accountability and, predictably, resulted in finger pointing and institution blaming.

There usually came a time when the forum groups met with institutional actors. However, this was after the groups had first become clear about their agenda and had determined how their own resources could be used in implementing issue or innovation decisions. This process

reflected, in practice, the basic sequential planning process for productive neighborhood groups:

  1. To achieve our purpose, what resources do we have in the neighborhood that will allow us to deal with our issue or innovation with no outside resources?
  2. Using our own resources, what purposes can we fulfill if there are also some outside resources to support our work?
  3. Finally, which purposes do we have that depend entirely on outside resources?

In this sequence, citizen capacity for productivity is the primary question and institutional roles are understood to be supportive of these capacities.

Finally, there are many possible institutions that could convene local associations including universities, local governments, community centers, some social service agencies, civic organizations, chambers of commerce, etc. The unusual aspect of this type of convening is that the institution needs to set aside its own substantive priorities while recognizing the critical value of increasing the social capital and productive capacity of local citizens.

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Local Associations as Schools for Democratic Practice (Learning Fourteen)

John McKnight
Co-Founder, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

It is clear that most associations are created to enable the purposes of people who are “like-minded”. Whether it is an association of people who collect the stamps of Israel or who gather because of their common love of bowling, what they have in common is the “glue” that holds them together. They associate because they care about the same thing and/or they care about each other.

The activities of these “like-minded” associations tend to focus on administrative matters, arrangements for activities, making their advocacy more effective, and increasing the visibility of the group and its purposes. Rarely do these groups have tensions or divisions that one might describe as small “p” political.

Where might one look for associations where decisions of a political character require resolution? One such venue is neighborhood associations and block clubs. They often engage in decisions regarding local property, security, municipal services, local youth, etc. It is usually the case that there are diverse viewpoints that need to be resolved. One reason for these differing viewpoints is that each homeowner/renter chooses a residence because of their unique individual situation. They infrequently are involved in identifying the interests of their neighbors before they choose a household. Therefore they tend to be much more diverse in their interests and confront quite diverse neighborhood questions. As a result, most neighborhood organizations and block clubs are engaged in serious resident political discussions embedded in diverse self-interests. As these local associations grapple with diverse views and multiple concerns, they act as experiential educators about democratic practice.

A useful question might be to identify other associations where their “unlike-mindedness” requires decision-making through dialogue, debate, discourse, deliberation, etc.

Local associational decision-making, whether “like-minded” or not, tends to be a bonding process. The focus is internal. However, there is also the question of associational bridging. When do more parochial local associations have the motive to bridge? Most commonly in cities there are associations of neighborhood associations. These coalitions provide another level of learning about the democratic process because they multiply the nature of the issues and the nature of the constituents.

Another useful question is what other kinds of associations tend toward creating bridging structure, and where are there associational bridging structure among diverse, rather than “like-minded” groups?

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Differentiating the Functions of Institutions and Associations: A Geometry Lesson (Learning Thirteen)

John McKnight
Co-Founder, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

In the community-building world, a significant number of local initiatives fail because the participants are not clear about the difference between the functions of associations and institutions. This failure most often occurs when institutions attempt to take on functions that are actually better performed by associations.

Associations are defined as smaller, often face-to-face groups where the members do the work and they are not paid. Their geometric form is symbolized by a circle. Typical examples include block clubs, veteran’s organizations, gardening clubs, advocacy groups etc.

Institutions are defined as groups of paid people in formal, hierarchical organizations. Their form is symbolized by a triangle. They come in three organizational forms: for profit, not for profit and governmental.

Just as a hammer and a saw each perform distinctive functions, circular associations and triangular institutions have forms appropriate to their functions. In order to clarify these distinctive functions, it is useful to outline the unique nature and capacity of institutional and associational forms of organized people. The chart below is a summary illustration of the distinctive capacities of each form.

Institutions are triangular constructions because their essential purpose is to provide a means by which a few can control many. This is why most institutional organization charts have one person at the top and many people at the bottom. This control function is valuable whenever we need uniformity and standardization as in mass production. The “glue” that holds the people in institution together is money.

Associations are flat and circular because their function is to synthesize the unique interests of each participant and their continuity depends upon the choice to voluntarily participate. The glue that holds them together is trust.

The purpose of institutional control is to produce “lots of the same things” – goods or services.

While some associations may produce goods, they are rarely mass-produced. Instead, they are handmade and homemade. Therefore, they are the product of what people care about.

While care is sometimes described as being provided by service institutions, this is a misuse of the meaning of the word care. Care is the freely given commitment, from the heart, of one person to another. For example, “He cares about his spouse and his neighborhood more than anything else.” No institution can produce care in this traditional meaning. On the other hand, care is the essential necessity of an association’s continuity. It will not survive unless it provides an opportunity for its participants to care for each other and/or care about the same thing.

In recent times, institutions have laid claim to care because it is one of the deepest of human motives. Nonetheless, institutions cannot care. For example, Medicare doesn’t care. It is a group of people organized in a triangle to regularly send out checks to doctors and patients.

Whenever institutions purport to care, they are actually performing a function accurately called service. When they attempt to become the “providers of care,” they are actually manifesting counterfeit care that can reduce genuine associational care in communities.

Institutions require many clients or consumers in order that the “lots of the same things” they produce will be purchased. Associations neither produce nor need clients or consumers. Instead they need citizens

Institutions are designed to meet what they call needs. Actually, they need needs because without them their system of control is useless.

Associations do not need needs. Instead, they need the capacities of citizens who may also have deficits. Institutions need those deficits in order to have clients or consumers. Associations ignore deficits in order to mobilize the capacities of citizens.

The most common reason for failure of neighborhood based initiatives is triangles attempting to provide choice, care, citizenship, and capacity. In this confused effort, they not only fail to perform essential associational functions, but they can also promote the decline of associations by claiming that they can do what only associations can do.

It is important to recognize that institutional triangles have appropriate and necessary functions. If we want to fly an airplane we cannot do it in an associational form. We cannot have a pilot who says, “Well folks, we are all here. Where should we go?” At the same time, if we want to have citizens creating and implementing a vision for their neighborhood’s future, we cannot get an institution to do it for them. Instead they must fulfill a role called citizenship and use their principal tool – associations.

There are seven distinctively associational functions in local places. These are functions that, if unperformed, will create a widespread decline in the well-being of neighbors and increase their dependence on inadequate institutional substitutions.

First, our neighborhoods and associational relationships are the primary source of our health. How long we live and how often we are sick is determined by our personal behavior, our social relationships, our physical environment, and our income. As neighbors, we are the people who can change these things through our associated activity. Medical systems and doctors cannot. This is why epidemiologists agree that medical care counts for less than 15% of what will allow us to be healthy. Indeed, most informed medical leaders advocate for community health initiatives because they recognize their systems have reached the limits of their health-giving power.

Second, whether we are safe and secure in our neighborhood is largely within our local domain. One landmark study shows that there are two basic determinants of our local safety. One is how many neighbors we know by name. The second is how often we are present and associate in the public outside our houses. Police activity is a minor protection compared to these two community actions. This is why most informed police leaders advocate for block watch and community policing. They know their limits and call out to the neighborhood residents for associational solutions.

Third, the future of our earth – the environment – is a major neighborhood responsibility. The “energy problem” is a local domain because how we transport ourselves, how we heat and light our homes, and how much waste we create are major factors in saving our environment. That is why the associational movement is a major force in calling us and our neighbors to be citizens of the earth and not just consumers of the natural wealth.

Fourth, in our villages and neighborhoods, we have the power to build a resilient economy – less dependent on the mega-systems of finance and production that have proven to be so unreliable. Most enterprises begin locally – in garages, basements, kitchens, and dining rooms. As neighbors, we have the local power to nurture and support these enterprises so that they have a viable market. And we have the local power to create credit unions that capture our own savings so that we are not captives of large financial institutions. We also are the most reliable sources of jobs. Word-of-mouth among neighbors is still the most important access to employment. The future of our economic security is now clearly a responsibility, possibility, and necessity for the associational neighborhood.

Fifth, we are quickly learning that part of our domain is the production of the food we eat. We are allied with the local food movement, supporting local producers and markets. In this way, we will be doing our part to solve the energy problem caused by transportation of food from continents away. We will be doing our part to solve our economic problems by circulating our dollars locally. And we will be improving our health by eating food free of poisons and petroleum.

Sixth, we are local people who must collectively raise our children. We all say that “it takes a village to raise a child”. And yet, in modernized societies, this is rarely true in neighborhoods. Instead, we pay systems to raise our children – teachers, counselors, coaches, youth workers, nutritionists, doctors, McDonalds, and iPhones. We are often reduced as families to being responsible for paying others to raise our children and transporting them to their paid child-raisers. Our villages have often become useless; our neighbors responsible for neither their children nor ours. As a result, we all talk about the local “youth problem”.

There is no “youth problem”. There is a “village problem” of adults who have forgone their responsibility and capacity to join their neighbors in raising the young. There is a remarkable recovery movement that joins neighbors in sharing the wealth of children. It is our greatest challenge and our most hopeful possibility.

Seventh, locally we are the site of care. Our institutions can only offer service – not care. We cannot purchase care. Care is the freely given commitment from the heart of one to another. As neighbors, we can care for each other. We can care for our children. We can care for our elders. And it is this care that is the basic power of a community of associated citizens.

Health, safety, economy, environment, food, children, and care are the seven special capacities of local associations. They are the unique functions of local associations. When local associations fail to fulfill these functions, institutions and governments cannot provide a substitute. Their “triangular” capacities mainly create counterfeits, palliatives, and dependency.

Tocqueville said that “in democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science: the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made.” The progress he commends depends on our ability to understand the unique and critical functions of associations and our ability to create and multiply their ability to perform their unique functions.

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Wicked Issues For Neighborhood Leaders and Organizers (Learning Twelve)

By John McKnight
Co-Director, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

Most effective people acting as neighborhood organizers or leaders have a primary value of maximizing participation – more people means more power to advocate and create. This places a high value on community questions that unify rather than divide.

In the Alinsky model of neighborhood organizing, the questions focused on have been mainly about the inadequacies of outside institutions, for example, local government, schools, merchants, etc. The neighborhood’s common perception of these inadequacies maximizes the participation of residents. In the lingo of Alinkyism, the organization grows powerful as a common external ‘enemy’ is identified.

While external institutions are frequently a problem, there are also many questions within the neighborhood where collective resident action would be required to resolve them. It is these internal questions that many leaders and organizers understand as divisive rather than inclusive. Some of the most common issues with divisive possibilities include child abuse, domestic abuse, sexual predators and abortion, etc. Each of these questions is a major issue in the lives of local residents although they tend to be publically invisible. Whenever residents raise these issues, most organizers and leaders recognize their divisive potential and typically engage strategies that sidestep them.

In one sense, there are visible and invisible issues in a neighborhood. Those typically acted upon are the visible, external and internal problems. However, is a role for neighborhood organizers and leaders to make visible the kinds of issues described above? Is there a way for these kinds of issues to be raised so that they do not reduce the participation of local residents in civic life?

Several years ago, as I drove through a small Wisconsin town, I noticed on one block that the same signs were posted in many of the yards. The signs said, “There is No Room for Domestic Abuse on This Block.” I wondered whether these signs were the results of a few concerned individuals on the block or the result of an initiative from some local association or institution. Certainly, the signs made visible the invisible and would have affected the consciousness of many people in the neighborhood who were not on the block. One wonders whether the signs stimulated discussions in families, other blocks or neighborhood and community organizations. What kind of community discussions might

build upon the visibility of an issue that was once discussed only behind closed doors? In practice, the typical public response to these wicked issues is to place them in the domain of professionals – certified people who have expertise in child abuse, domestic abuse, etc. Could it be that this professionalization of issues removes citizens as critical actors in dealing with the problem? Could it be that a collectively energized local citizen could have more real impact on the issue than the professional interventions?

Another question with great divisive potential is whether neighborhood civic associations should endorse particular candidates. It is customary that local groups might hold forums involving all candidates in order to inform their constituency about the choices. However, when local activist citizens attempt to get a local association to endorse a particular candidate, they are likely to be told that the local organization is not-for-profit and cannot legally endorse candidates, or that the association is non- partisan. These responses preclude a discussion of the comparative relevance of the positions of the two candidates in terms of significant community issues. Could it be that a discussion of the impact of these candidate’s differing positions as they affect the neighborhood, is a critical civic function? And, what use is a discussion about community impacts of the various candidacies without the ability of the group to select the one whose positions are most congruent with the association’s goals? In many localities, the candidacy question is redirected to those local associations that are political parties or activist groups. Therefore, the vital citizen role of making associational decisions about potential officials who will vitally affect the neighborhood’s life is precluded. However, the unity of the civic association is enhanced.

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Putting Associations Back in Public Education (Learning Eleven)

By John McKnight
Co-Director, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

The asset-based community development process identifies five basic community building resources that exist in almost every neighborhood. These resources are:

  1. Capacities of individuals
  2. Associations
  3. Institutions (four profit, not-for –profit, government)
  4. Physical environment
  5. Exchange

The first three assets represent human learning resources in addition to their other attributes. There are numerous neighborhoods organized to identify the knowledge of local residents as learning resources. However, almost none have understood the potential of associations as learning resources.

A study of local associations was conducted in the small town of Spring Green, WI, entitled A Study of the Community Benefits Provided by Local Associations (2013). The actual questionnaire for the study, is the Spring Green Study Questionnaire. Item C-2 on the questionnaire asks, “What are the major benefits your members get from your association?” Of the 62 associational leaders interviewed, 20 answered that “learning” was the major benefit their members acquired. Therefore, the associational life of the community was identified as an educational resource in a third of the cases.

Reviewing the 62 associations, the following 23 can be identified as learning sites: Bloomin Buddies Garden Club – gardening
Friends of Governor Dodge State Park – environment and ecology
Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway – environment and ecology

Friends of the Spring Green Library – literature
Green Squared Building Association – energy efficiency
Habitat for Humanity – construction methods
Mew Haven – animal care
Mostly Mondays Poetry Society – literature
Older and Wiser Land Stewards (OWLS) – prairie restoration, environment River Valley Players – theater
River Valley Soccer Association – sports

River Valley Stitchers – quilting
Solstice Jazz Band – music
Spring Green Arts Coalition – arts
Spring Green Chamber of Commerce – business
Spring Green EMT – emergency preparedness, medical care Spring Green Historical Society – history

Spring Green Food Pantry – food scarcity
Spring Green Film Club – films
Spring Green Lions Club – community service and citizenship Spring Green Literary festival – literature
Stitch’n Bitch – needlework
Veterans for Peace – peace advocacy

There are also 8 associations specifically designed to engage youth: Girls Scout Troop 669 – citizenship
Cub Scout Pack No. 38 – citizenship
Future Farmers of America – agricultural management and citizenship River Valley Youth Football Club – sports

High School Madrigal Choir and Jazz Vocal Group – music
High School Senior Service Learning Class – community service, citizenship Skills U.S.A. – mechanical skills
Spring Green Dolphins – sports

There are also 4 church associations that provide numerous learning opportunities for their members, including young people:
Christ Lutheran Church
Cornerstone Church

Community Church Catholic Church

The total is 35 associations providing diverse learning opportunities. Paradoxically, practically none of the 23 non-youth/non-church associations have youthful members such as teenagers. This lack of a relationship results in several losses:

  1. The loss of valuable learning opportunities for young people.
  2. The establishment of productive relationships between young people and adults

    in the community.

  3. The loss of energetic contributions that young people could make to the life of

    the association.

  4. The loss of the learnings that the adults in the associations would acquire from the young people with different perspectives.

There is an open field for creative invention in civic life if associations could be inspired to begin to incorporate people in their organizations who are under 18 years of age.

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Who Represents the Neighbor? (Learning Ten)

By John McKnight
Co-Director, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

One way of understanding who represents a neighbor is their elected representative. Nonetheless, there are other neighborhood groups and associations that claim they also represent the neighbors.

In the fifties, sixties and seventies, the then Mayor Daley in Chicago was the leader of the municipal government and of the city’s Democratic Party. The Party was organized with Precinct Captains at the most local level, then Ward Committeemen at the ward level. These Captains and Committeemen traditionally held jobs in the government and acted together as a part of what was popularly known as “the Machine.” Mayor Daley believed that the neighbors were represented by the local party officials and their elected alderperson. He was unsympathetic with the idea of an independent neighborhood organization. When he or his organization were challenged by various kinds of neighborhood groups, he often responded by saying, “Who do you represent? We have a neighborhood organization with Precinct Captains, Ward Committeemen and the Alderperson. They really represent the neighborhood because they were chosen in an official election available to all the residents in the neighborhood. You don’t really represent the neighborhood because you don’t involve everybody.”

The Mayor’s challenge to the representativeness of local neighborhood associations focused on breadth of participation. In practice, these associations tend to take three forms:

  1. An organization historically created by a few neighbors that assigned themselves the name “Neighborhood Association.” These associations typically meet monthly at a public location and anyone in the neighborhood can attend. Quite frequently, these meetings involve twenty people in a neighborhood of 35,000 residents. Rarely would even 100th of the residents appear.
  2. An association with a constituency base of block clubs. Early in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, there was an aspiration to have a block club organized in every block in the neighborhood. However, the experience was that to organize and support these block clubs was far too demanding in terms of funding and organizing personnel. This form could be significantly representative, but it’s resource demand is so great that there are very few places today where a block club neighborhood association involves all or even most of the blocks.
  3. 3. Saul Alinsky introduced a form of neighborhood association that is primarily based on creating an association of associations. The goal was to engage the leadership of local associations from sports leagues to veteran’s organizations to women’s groups to churches. It was his view that if you could get large numbers of local associations organized into one neighborhood association, you would have the greatest non-governmental possibility of being widely representative. He trained neighborhood organizers to identify local associations and to bring them together into a group that could claim to be the voice of the neighborhood. In fact, once again the resource problem limited Alinsky’s aspirations. To identify and engage fifty to one hundred local associations in one umbrella group requires talented organizers consistently engaged in creating and maintaining the alliance. Therefore, the association of associations began to atrophy because of the resource issues. The result is that today’s Alinsky organizations are usually composed, in the main, of local churches. In fact, “churched based organizing” is now the dominant form of Alinsky based neighborhood groups.

It’s obvious that none of these forms of neighborhood association could claim to officially “represent” the neighborhood as does Mayor Daley’s electoral system. However, the actual participation in the electoral system at the municipal level is never very high and may, in actual numbers, engage no more people than the best neighborhood organizations can engage.

Another way of comparing associational with electoral representation is to think about the functions that each may distinctively be able to preform. Associations whose members are individual residents provide unmediated opportunities to define personal concern and interests. They provide the important opportunity to be heard –to “tell it like it is.” Many people value a public forum where they give voice to their unique perspective. Collective action in response to their concern may be less important than the platform to express their concern. Because of the uniqueness of each individual voice, it is often difficult for these kinds of associations to reach a common position.

Another function of the individualized neighborhood associations is often to provide a vehicle for an unrepresentative few to have an inordinately powerful voice outside the neighborhood. This most often happens when the participants are home owners magnifying their voice, often at the expense of renters. These kinds of neighborhood groups usually defend their public positions by noting that their meetings are open to all.

Neighborhood organizations whose members are block clubs implicitly are space based, as are our elected units. They assume a geographic identity as the source of their authority. The very fact that a physical block is the unit of representation creates a local collective decision making process at the block and neighborhood level. These two levels of collective decision-making incentivize positions that represent the greatest common good. Because the best of these groups are structurally universal and informed by local discourse, they may be more “representative” of the neighborhood interest than the positions of a partisan elected official.

The third form of neighborhood organization is the “association of associations.“ Here the collective decisions are made by a coalition of special interest groups, i.e. sports leagues, gardening clubs, veteran’s organizations, churches, cause groups, men’s and women’s organizations, etc. This form implicitly creates an organization of many collective interests rather than geographic or individual interests. These “associations of associations” have no locus of commonality based on space/residence. Therefore, it is much more difficult for them to cohere as a group. Nonetheless, their diversity of interest can be their strength because they bring to the table concerns that, in the aggregate, create a wholistic agenda with prospects of a much broader set of policies and actions. For example, the various associations bring to the table, diverse assets:

  • Sports leagues – health, youth
  • Artistic groups – culture, creativity, economy
  • Merchant organizations – local markets and jobs
  • Environmental groups – recycling, energy conservation
  • Youth groups – safety, vocation, citizen preparation
  • Veteran’s groups – children learning citizenship
  • Men’s and Women’s groups – family support, youth opportunities
  • Gardening groups – health, local economy

Many of these special associational interests are recognized by most as for the common good–diverse issues around which they can cohere.

A functional analysis of the public benefits of these various forms of association suggests that each has a valuable and distinctive role. In sum, all three provide unique collective means of achieving the common good.

The basic dilemma of our era is the continuing decline of the prevalence and influence of all three forms. The dilemma is magnified by the decline of belief in and support for the electoral means of achieving the common good.

For those interested in how to enhance citizen participation, the first question may be, whether that can be done if our vehicles for achieving the common good are weak. What can revive or replace these vehicles? We need to search for and support associational actors and inventors. For, as Tocqueville ‘said,’ “In democratic countries the science of associations is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made.”

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Re-functioning: A New Community Development Strategy for the Future (Learning Nine)

John McKnight
Co-Director, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

Jamie Vollmer has written a landmark book titled, Schools Cannot Do It Alone (Enlightenment Press, 2010). In his book, he has documented the following new functions that have been undertaken by public schools since 1900:

From 1900 to 1910, we shifted to our public schools responsibilities related to:

  • Nutrition
  • Immunization
  • Health (Activities in the health arena multiply every year.)

    From 1910-1930, we added:

  • Physical education (including organized athletics)
  • The Practical Arts/Domestic Science/Home economics (including sewing and


  • Vocational education (including industrial agricultural education)
  • Mandated school transportation

    In the 1940’s, we added:

  • Business education (including typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping)
  • Art and music
  • Speech and drama
  • Half-day kindergarten
  • School lunch programs (We take this for granted today, but it was a huge step to

    shift to the schools the job of feeding America’s children one third of their daily meals.)

    In the 1950’s, we added:

  • Expanded science and math education
  • Safety education
  • Driver’s education
  • Expanded music and art education
  • Stronger foreign language requirements
  • Sex education (Topics continue to escalate.)

In the 1960’s, we added:

  • Advanced Placement programs
  • Head Start
  • Title I
  • Adult education
  • Consumer education (resources, rights and responsibilities)
  • Career education (options and entry level skill requirements)
  • Peace, leisure, and recreation education [Loved those sixties.]

    In the 1970’s, the breakup of the American family accelerated, and we added:

  • Drug and alcohol abuse education
  • Parenting education (techniques and tools for healthy parenting)
  • Behavior adjustment classes (including classroom and communication skills)
  • Character education
  • Special education (mandated by federal government)
  • Title IX programs (greatly expanded athletic programs for girls)
  • Environmental education
  • Women’s studies
  • African-American heritage education
  • School breakfast programs (Now some schools feed America’s children two-

    thirds of their daily meals throughout the school year and all summer. Sadly, these are the only decent meals some children receive.)

    In the 1980’s the floodgates opened, and we added:

  • Keyboarding and computer education
  • Global education
  • Multicultural/Ethnic education
  • Nonsexist education
  • English-as-a-second- language and bilingual education
  • Teen pregnancy awareness
  • Hispanic heritage education
  • Early childhood education
  • Jump Start, Early Start, Even Start, and Prime Start
  • Full-day kindergarten
  • Preschool programs for children at risk
  • After-school programs for children of working parents
  • Alternative education in all its forms
  • Stranger/danger education
  • Antismoking education
  • Sexual abuse prevention education
  • Expanded health and psychological services
  • Child abuse monitoring (a legal requirement for all teachers)

In the 1990’s, we added:

  • Conflict resolution and peer mediation
  • HIV/AIDS education
  • CPR training
  • Death education
  • America 2000 initiatives (Republican)
  • Inclusion
  • Expanded computer and internet education
  • Distance learning
  • Tech Prep and School to Work programs
  • Technical Adequacy Assessment
  • Post-secondary enrollment options
  • Concurrent enrollment options
  • Goals 2000 initiatives (Democrat)
  • Expanded Talented and Gifted opportunities
  • At risk and dropout prevention
  • Homeless education (including causes and effects on children)
  • Gang education (urban centers)
  • Service learning
  • Bus safety, bicycle safety, gun safety, and water safety education

    In the first decade of the twenty-first century, we have added:

  • No Child Left Behind (Republican)
  • Bully prevention
  • Anti-harassment policies (gender, race, religion, or national origin)
  • Expanded early childcare and wrap around programs
  • Elevator and escalator safety instruction
  • Body Mass Index evaluation (obesity monitoring)
  • Organ donor education and awareness programs
  • Personal financial literacy
  • Entrepreneurial and innovation skills development
  • Media literacy development
  • Contextual learning skill development
  • Health and wellness programs
  • Race to the Top (Democrat)

    This research indicates that at least ninety-five new functions have been assumed by public schools and that the increase in these new functions has accelerated since the 1980’s. Some of these functions are innovations that were created within school systems. However, most of them are functions that were once performed outside of the systems-especially in local communities.

This transfer of community functions to the schools has had two negative effects on schools. First, teachers have been asked to add topics to their pedagogy for which they have no training. Second, the growing number of new topics has burdened the classroom teacher with more responsibilities than can possibly be fulfilled. The result is often frustrated and overloaded teachers who have less and less time to teach the basic topics for which they were trained.

The transfer of community functions to the schools has also had two negative effects upon local communities. The first is that because the schools have been structurally unable to fulfill many of the functions once performed in the neighborhood, there have been an increasing number of unsolved neighborhood problems. Second, communities, neighborhoods and local residents have also lost the competence to collectively perform their essential functions. This lost knowledge of how a competent citizenry performs its unique community functions is displaced and paradoxically, citizens become frustrated because schools can’t solve the problems that their own communities once resolved.

This transfer of community functions to institutions is not limited to the schools. Indeed, it is a phenomenon that has occurred in many other institutions.

For example, the responsibility and capacity to deal with neighborhood security has been transferred to police systems. Paradoxically, the superintendents of most major police departments now say that the “crime” problem cannot be solved without community engagement. In some cases, police departments have even created units that organize neighbors into “block watch” – a group of local residents relearning how they can use their collective power to be more secure.

While “block watch” is a commendable effort by police systems to transfer some of the security functions back to the local community, the overall trend is to invest in more police rather than more refunctioning of communities. As a result, in many cities neighborhood security has declined while police power has increased.

Almost all the leaders of the medical establishment agree that the primary source of good health is in the local community. They point to individual behavior, associational life, the physical environment and economic status as the major health determinants. However, they have no control over any of them because these determinants are largely the work of local communities. Nonetheless, many local residents now believe that the medical care system is the primary source of health and that their wellbeing is primarily created in a hospital.

Local governments have professionalized, developing management skills while using more technology. As their capacities have grown, local residents have shifted from being productive local citizens to becoming advocates for the government to solve all their problems. In some local governments, there has been an effort to maximize citizen participation, but this activity largely culminates in new responsibilities and function for local government rather than re-functioning neighborhoods.

As the corporatization of food production and distribution has blossomed, the capacity to produce food locally has diminished. The once common backyard garden disappeared. Recently, a hopeful, burgeoning movement to produce local food has emerged across the nation creating the first bloom of a re-functioning of the source of nourishment.

This history of institutions assuming community functions is a major cause of community dysfunction. Its consequence is expressed in the growing isolation of neighbors, one from another. It is also expressed in the decline of local associational life that was documented by Robert Putnam in his book, Bowling Alone. Together, these two declines have dissolved the basic social fabric that is the primary resource for productive, functional civic engagement.

The functions where collective citizen productivity can reclaim neighbor well being and problem solving include:

  1. Safety
  2. Health
  3. Enterprise
  4. Food
  5. Ecology
  6. Children
  7. Care (not service)

In redefining the functions of neighborhoods, these seven domains are the development agenda for the future. What collective, local citizen action can enhance these domains? What policies and action of institutions and funders can support, rather than displace, these productive citizen capacities?

In this new development strategy, it is important to recognize the secondary benefits. As new relationships develop locally in order to create a competent community, the neighbors are building a bank of social capital. They are also creating a culture supporting the presumption of citizen capacity rather than citizens being merely consumers of institutional outputs. Also, the relationships growing out of community work will often necessarily cross, dividing lines of age, race, ethnicity, gender, etc. And finally, this collective citizen productivity creates a new sense of efficacy and self-worth among the participating individuals.

While it takes a village to raise a child, our current dilemma is the lack of village. Therefore, the first step in creating a village is to relocate functions that have made so many neighborhoods powerless and unproductive.

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